Fruits of Labor

Heirloom Farmers’ Market Manager Manish Shah talks finance, flavor, and figs.

September 12, 2013

In the BusinessIssue 2: September/October 2013

You run the Heirloom Farmers’ Markets. How did Heirloom start?

My involvement began about 20 years ago. St. Philip’s Plaza happened to have a farmers’ market on Fridays. Out of college, I was hired to be the marketing coordinator for the plaza’s merchants’ association. Running the farmers’ market was part of my job. I got that year of experience working with the farmers’ market and working at the property. Later, I moved from marketing to wanting to produce a product. I developed a chai, and after that more teas, and subsequently I became the Maya Tea Company. In order to get my product out there, I became a vendor at the farmers’ markets. That’s how I got my start: at a little four-foot table, sampling chai.

You take the name from “farmers,” the growers of food. Is that definition changing?

There’s two very different ways of looking at that. The core of the farmers’ market is the locally grown and produced goods. So that includes the fruits and vegetables. Then you have the cheese, the eggs, the chicken, the pork, and the beef and lamb. To that you can add what would be locally made. Breads, honey, tortillas, because [they’re] being made by somebody local. The wheat may not come from here. Some of it does, but not all of it; you can still get White Sonora wheat. The breads and the tortillas are not purely local, because some of the ingredients are coming from elsewhere, but they’re assembled here. Same thing can be said for salsa. Certain components of that are local, some are not. What is local, and where does it truly come from? As long as it feels right in the wheelhouse, that you feel you connected with someone who knows that product intimately, how it was made and where it was made, I think we can live with that.

What does it take to grow produce and get it to market?

Most of the businesses, especially on the agricultural side, the fruits and the vegetables and things that are growing, are working very hard. I don’t want to say that they’re just surviving, because that’s not honorable. They’re doing more than surviving. They’re thriving in their own way if you include the notion of thriving as doing something you love to do. But if you extended it to building an empire of some sort, I don’t think so. I think they’re doing something really healthy.

Is there a relationship between supermarket and farmers’ market pricing?

The prices at the farmers’ market are generally higher. My feeling is, sell it at a price that is prosperous. If the pricing was so skewed to try to compete and make food cheaper than the supermarket, it’s going to be the end of that farm. What they do, and how they do it, is expensive. There’s a different business model here: I’m going to eat really good food. I’m going to take care of my local economy. I’m going to take care of my small farm. I’m going to take better care of myself by eating more nutritiously.

How is a farmers’ market relevant to a home gardener?

Well, we can certainly help them get seeds. We can help them get more knowledge about growing, and if they have excess, they can sell it at the farmers’ market. There are small growers who come out, and we make some arrangement. They don’t pay what a huge stand would pay. This weekend, there were some figs. Here’s this backyard grower who’s got a bunch of figs and doesn’t want to set up a stand. He sells it to another vendor, who will sell it for him. He gets a cut, they get a cut, everybody’s happy, and these amazing figs showed up at my farmers’ market.

Are there products you see as a priority for sustaining the farmers’ market?

The vegetables and the fruits; they are really important, but I also would say to take some of those things, and make other things, that’s the local flavor. The flavor is in the tortillas. It’s in the salsa. It’s in the tamales. Those are obviously indigenous, but it’s in the baked goods; knowing your local baker. It’s in the cheese. It’s in the coffee. It’s the ability to go to a place, and fill up your pantry and your fridge with more than just fruits and vegetables, to fill it up with the flavor of your community. ✜

Lisa Levine blogs about inner and outer natures at cargocollective.com/alluvialdispositions


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